By Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
Tama Matsuoka Wong is the author of Foraged Flavor, and she runs Meadows + More. She collects plants that most of us call weeds and sells them to high-end restaurants, where they are turned into flavorful artisanal dishes. Her cookbook, Foraged Flavor, provides helpful images and descriptions of common, tasty weeds many American can forage in our areas, and recipes that don’t require a degree in the culinary arts or other unusual ingredients.
With Whole Terrain’s current call for submissions on the theme of trust and environmental practice, I thought of Tama Matsuoka Wong’s work. I imagined the trust involved in sampling unfamiliar plants. I wondered about the level of trust involved in shifting from a career in law and the financial sector to a career of foraging for weeds. I wanted to hear her perspective on how she experiences trust in her interaction with the natural world and in her environmental practice.
Through recent email and phone conversations and her TEDX Manhattan talk, I enjoyed getting to know Tama Matsuoka Wong and hearing her story, and I am excited to share her insight with you on trust and environmental practice. In this blog post, I will introduce you to Tama Matsuoka Wong and share parts of her story. We will feature a Q&A with her in an upcoming post, where she goes a little deeper and gives us some food for thought as we continue delving into Whole Terrain’s topic of trust and environmental practice.
Matsuoka Wong spent a number of years working in the financial sector after graduating from Harvard Law School. She tells her story in the introduction to Foraged Flavor, that she was going to dinner with some friends and found a certain weed growing in her backyard, so she took it to the chef earlier in the day to see if he could incorporate it into their meal for the evening. The relationship with the chef grew from there, and Matsuoka Wong began bringing him different kinds of weeds with which to experiment. Before she knew it, she was dragging garbage bags full of weeds into her corporate office for later drop-off at the restaurant.
“I never imagined that I would become ‘Trash bag Tama,’” she laughed. Since that time, she has transitioned to full-time foraging in her “outdoor office,” with consulting work and lectures filling her off-season hours.
Regarding the use of weeds as a culinary product, Matsuoka Wong draws out the fact that most of us are immigrants to this country: the people and the weeds. She recognizes the disconnect many of us have with our cultural roots. We no longer remember what to do with these plants we call “weeds,” many of which were brought here because of their edible nature. Her Japanese relatives and friends recognized Japanese knotweed, which she was vigorously attempting to eradicate in her yard. Harvesting weeds provides great diversity and flavor. It is also very inexpensive to forage! One does not need major grants and infrastructure in order to find weeds in one’s backyard or neighborhood. There is something empowering about the ability to forage, to find food growing up through the cracks in the sidewalk, or spreading wild on a piece of unused land. (Matsuoka Wong cautions not to eat weeds whose history you are unfamiliar with—you don’t want to eat something that has been sprayed with pesticides, and of course it is not very neighborly to forage on someone else’s property without permission.)
Matsuoka Wong lived with her family in Hong Kong for a number of years, working in the financial sector. Her daughters were born there. She wanted her daughters to be able to “muck about,” to live in closer proximity to a natural setting, to not be so bound by an urban environment. They found a place on 28 acres in New Jersey. As a family, they learned to observe and wonder within the microcosm of their immediate landscape.
Each daughter, though initially thinking her mother crazy for cooking weeds, now has her favorites: paw-paws for one, dandelions and amaranth leaves for another, and wine berries for the third. They enjoyed testing the creations Tama Matsuoka Wong concocted for her cookbook.
Since Matsuoka Wong began down this path of foraging, she has created connections with local business owners, landowners, conservationists, botanists, chefs, nutritionists, and members of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). She listened to local naturalists to learn about various plant and animal species, their habitats and ecosystems, and learned to notice how invasive a species is. She helped coordinate the creation of a Floristic Quality Assessment Index (FQAI) for New Jersey. Previously, New Jersey did not have a complete index of its flora. She worked together with the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve and members of the DEP to educate citizen scientists and conservation groups to utilize the FQAI to calculate the health of a given plant community. The FQAI can be used to determine the quality of naturalness of a landscape based on the plants that grow there as well as measure the changes in diversity and other indicators in response to management techniques. This methodology is now being used in many states across the nation to assess the level of health of plant communities, and to aid in restoration and care of different environments.
I hope you are as inspired by Tama Matsuoka Wong’s work as I am. She is obviously brilliant, with her Harvard degree and her ability to make a new career out of foraging, as well as the way she taught herself the flora of her home state and found others who could teach her what she wanted to know. She is able to think at the highest levels, conceptualizing and building methodologies that are useful to many settings, and she is simultaneously able to think at the individual level, creating a cookbook to help us novice foragers figure out what to do with these strange edibles.
Our next blog post will feature Tama Matsuoka Wong’s thoughts about the ways trust is involved in her environmental practices. We’ll hear about her experience building trusting relationships with other people in this process, her thoughts on trust at the macro-level and the day-to-day level, and her thoughts about being trust-worthy. Meanwhile, check out this recent New York Times publication of her pawpaw pudding, which looks like a delectable holiday dessert!